This Month in Aviation History – Lindbergh

On Saturday, June 4th 1927, a mere two weeks after Charles A. Lindbergh had changed the world, a Bellanca WB-2 monoplane christened “Columbia” took off on what was to be the second non-stop Trans-Atlantic airplane flight — and the first-ever passenger carrying flight to cross the great ocean. But for several twists of fate, this aircraft could have been the first to do both…

While shopping for a plane to cross the Atlantic and claim the $25,000 Ortieg Prize, Charles Lindbergh had tried to purchase the Bellanca WB-2, but the Bellanca could only be had with the pilot, Clarence Chamberlin. This was a condition set by the owners, the Columbia Aircraft Corporation, in the person of Charles Levine. Lindbergh took his business elsewhere.

The WB-2 was earth-bound, on May 20th, when the Ryan NY-P “Spirit of St. Louis,” took off for Paris. A court order (brought on by intense bickering during the crew selection process) left the Bellanca grounded — and sentenced to the shadows of history, forever.

When the court order had been rescinded, an eternity had passed for aviation. Lindbergh had conquered the Atlantic, but Chamberlin was set to try again. This time the target would not be Paris. The target would be more than 500 miles further (Berlin) AND it was announced that Chamberlin was not to fly alone, but with a secret passenger.

As Chamberlin readied the aircraft for takeoff from Roosevelt Field in New York, a car pulled up and the aircraft’s wealthy owner, Charles Levine stepped out. He walked quickly to the WB-2, and in front of shocked onlookers, climbed in and the pair took off. Perhaps the most astonished was Levine’s wife Grace, who screamed “He’s not going!” several times before nearly fainting. She had earlier threatened to burn the plane before allowing Levine to become the passenger. Clearly, she was too late.

The aircraft wandered its way across the ocean with compass problems and as the Wright Whirlwind engine burned the last of its fuel (some forty-three hours after takeoff), the Columbia had still not reached Berlin. It had passed Paris by a handsome margin, but landed in the village of Helfta, near Eisleben, Germany. After flying nearly 4,000 miles (closer to 4,500 with wind and course corrections included), the pair had put down just 100 miles short of their goal. After refueling, they set out to finish, but became lost in thick cloud cover. Alighting outside Berlin in the town of Kottbus, the WB-2 suffered a broken propeller, but this was quickly repaired. News of the flight had reached Berlin, so when the Columbia at last made her appearance, there was a crowd of some 150,000 at the Tempelhof airfield to greet them.

While not remembered to the extent of Lindbergh, the flight of Clarence Chamberlin and his passenger Charles Levine helped, in no small measure, the acceptance of air travel — as evidenced by the more than 54 million* passengers who will fly on scheduled carriers this June.

*The estimated number of passengers flown in 1998. Figures provided by “Air Carrier Traffic Statistics-Monthly,’ a publication of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board.